This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Acts 5:1-11
Sermon by Rev. Mark Verbruggen, Sioux Center Iowa
What do you do with a text such as Acts 5:1-11 which tells us about the deaths of Ananias and his wife Sapphira? This story seems out of place at the beginning of Acts. If you were to read through the first part of Acts you would see that since chapter 1 of this book, Luke has been telling us about the many things which the disciples of Jesus were enabled to do and teach after the ascension of the Lord. So far it has been a narrative which tells us about the power of the Holy Spirit in the apostle’s lives and the phenomenal growth of the Church. Acts 4:33 summarizes everything up until our text when it says, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.” It’s a picture of a wonderful community of God’s people. The gospel of the resurrection is proclaimed and abundant grace is upon all the people ... - except in Acts 5:1-11. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira do not seem to fit with the narrative just before the text and after it. Why does Luke interrupt his account with this depressing story?
First of all, we need to understand that our text is not an interruption in the flow of the book. In fact, the first word of Acts 5:1 should be “But”, not “Now”. “But a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property.” This links our text with what has just been said at the previous chapter. Acts 4:36-37 tells us that a man called Barnabas sold a field and gave the money to the apostles so that it could be used for distribution among the believers who were in need. His action must have brought Barnabas much praise and thanks among the believers. In fact, his name was actually “Joseph”, but the apostles called him “Barnabas” which means “Son of Encouragement”. It is this event at the end of the previous chapter which now leads into our text. Acts 5:1-11 is not an interruption in the flow of the book, rather, it is an integral part of the narrative. Ananias, moved by what he has just seen Barnabas do, decides along with this wife, to do the same thing. The only difference is, his action is motivated by a completely different spirit than that of Barnabas. If Barnabas was moved by the Holy Spirit to do what he did, and for that he won much praise and favour from God and men, Ananias has done the opposite. Moved by a different spirit, an unholy spirit, he received no praise, but only severe judgment.
The fact that Luke includes Ananias and his wife in this second book of his, should indicate to us that this is an accurate and historical account of the first century Christian Church. What author, bent on deceiving the world about the truth of what happened after Jesus left this world, would include a story which might cause offense to those who hear it? For many people our text may sound judgmental, harsh, cruel, and perhaps not fit for communicating the good news of the gospel of Christ. Isn’t the Lord supposed to love everyone? Doesn’t his grace come upon all people? Some theologians have even said that they hope this story is a legend and not true because it makes the apostle Peter seem harsh and God’s judgment severe. Think about it, Ananias was not even given a chance to repent before he was struck down. Then the apostles didn’t even have the courtesy to inform his wife about his death and when she came looking for him, she was also struck down for participating in the lie. What kind of pastoral care is that? In the end, however, I believe that all of these objections serve only prove the historicity of the narrative. You see, Luke tells us this story of judgment in the midst of many other stories which speak of the spread of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives because he wants us to know that the Spirit at work among God’s people is a HOLY Spirit and God will not be mocked by human sin! Lest we begin to think that God is safe, that we can treat him as less than what he has revealed himself to be, we are once again shown that he is not safe. He is holy and he is good, but he will not be trifled with. This God will not be mocked. Let’s take a closer look at the text.
After the introductions and situation are given in verses 1-2, Peter confronts Ananias with his crime in verses 3-4. He says, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit ...” And then at the end of verse 4 he says, “You have not lied to men but to God.” Here we come already to the heart of the matter. The real crime in this text is not that this man and his wife kept back some of the money. Their crime is that they have lied to God. In these verses we see an unambiguous reference to the deity of the Holy Spirit. He along with the Father and the Son is eternal God. Ananias and Sapphira lied to God the Holy Spirit while attempting to make themselves look better than they were. It is the sin of hypocrisy. Peter says to the husband, “Didn’t (the field) belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing?” Hypocrisy is a destructive force within the community of God’s people. If Satan cannot destroy the church from without, he will attempt to destroy it from within. The theologian John Stott writes that Ananias and Sapphira were not so much misers as they were thieves. “They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.”
If Luke writes the book of Acts in order to record for us the work of God the Holy Spirit among the community of believers, he also wants to inform us of a different spirit which is also at work in the world and in the church. Our text serves as a warning for us today. The first century Christian Church was not a perfect community and neither are we. There has never been a time when God’s people were perfect. We need to be on guard against the work of the unholy spirit. F.F. Bruce writes, “The story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the book of Joshua. In both narratives an act of deceit interrupts the victorious progress of God’s people.” Do you remember Achan? After the victory of the Israelites at the battle of Jericho, Joshua ordered that all of the goods and the wealth of the city were to be devoted to the Lord. The people could keep nothing for themselves. The city of Jericho and its wealth was to be offered as the first fruits to the Lord. It was as if it were the tithe offered from the land of Canaan to the covenant Lord. In Joshua 7:1 it says, “But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan, the son of Carmi of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.” As a result of this crime Israel was defeated in their next battle. When the sin of Achan was later discovered he, like Ananias in our text, was punished by being put to death. The Lord will not be mocked. He will not tolerate sin. Those who say that the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful and violent God and that the God of the New Testament is a God of love and grace, have never read the whole book! In the Reformed tradition we declare that it is all one revelation. The God of the Bible is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Sovereign One. He is the Holy One. Apart from his grace, we are all the same as Achan at the battle of Jericho and Ananias and Sapphira in the early Christian Church. It is no wonder that our text concludes in Acts 5:11 by saying, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
To “fear the Lord” is a good and proper attitude. It does not mean to be “scared” of the Lord and regard him as an unapproachable tyrant. To “fear the Lord” is to have the wisdom to know that he is holy and sovereign and we are not. Holiness and sovereignty demand respect. The Lord loves us and we can love him because of his grace shown to us in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit comes into us and awakens our stubborn and sinful wills to know and experience this powerful love. If we are not controlled by the Holy Spirit, if we do not live by faith, then in everything we do we are only further incurring the wrath of God against us. Only the person who has the Holy Spirit can do the good God requires of us. In Romans 2 verses 8 and 10 it says that “for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. ... but glory, honour, and peace for everyone who does good.” The Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 91 teaches that there are three criteria for any work to be considered “good”. First, it arises out of true faith; second, it conforms to God’s law; and third, it is done for his glory. Only under the influence of the Holy Spirit will anyone meet this criteria. Where Ananias and Sapphira fail in our text is especially in the third criteria. There action was not done for the glory of God but for the glory of themselves.
So why were they put to death for their actions? Aren’t all of us at some time or another guilty of the same sin? The answer is “Yes, we are”. So why aren’t we punished with a death sentence? The short answer is the grace of God. Psalm 103:10 says that the Lord “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” That’s grace. Grace is not something we can demand from the Lord. It’s not something we can earn. So why was this couple in our text denied grace and made to pay for their sin with capital punishment? Ultimately the answer to this question is left to the Lord himself. However, perhaps we would benefit from seeing our text in light of the miracles which happened in the book of Acts.
What are miracles? In essence a miracle is a restoration back to the way things are supposed to be. They are a sign of God’s “shalom”, his peace and restoration coming upon an individual or situation which is broken by the Fall. It is interesting to note that before and after our text, Luke tells us about miraculous healings which the apostles and in particular Peter, were enabled to perform. In Acts 3 we read an account in which Peter healed a man who had been crippled from birth. Immediately after the incident in our text it says in Acts 5:15 that the apostles healed so many others that people brought their sick into the streets so that “at least Peter’s shadow might fall on them” as they lay in the street. Miracles should not be regarded as “extraordinary” signs. They are reaffirmations of the normativity of the good creation order which is restored in Christ. They represent manifestations of the future kingdom within our present reality. That being the case, perhaps we should see the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira from this perspective as well. If the coming of the Kingdom means restoration for mankind and creation and all that God chooses to bless with his grace, it also means destruction for that which is evil. Without grace we all deserve death. The death of this couple is not “extraordinary” its, dare I say, “normal” in a restored world. The destruction of evil is as real as the restoration of mankind and creation. So why them and not others? That is not a question to which we are given an answer. Our only response to all of this should be, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
In the end, this is what I believe we need to hear in our text. This story of judgment must ultimately open our eyes further to the grace of God in Jesus Christ towards us. God has come among us in his Son in order to restore the world and usher in a New Creation. In this restoration that which is “good” is sanctified by the Lord’s grace. That which is “evil” is destroyed. Grace comes upon those whom God chooses to show mercy. Each day that we wake up and go about our daily routines is a gift of his grace. It is the undeserved favour of God shown to us. Each day is a day of grace. A day to bring glory to God by repenting of our sins and asking for his Holy Spirit to guide us in all our living. God is sovereign. He is holy. He fills us with his HOLY Spirit. We in turn becomes agents of his grace wherever the Lord calls us to be in this world.
Opening Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 244, “God Himself is with Us”
Greeting: May the grace of God the Father and the peace of God the Son be with us all.
Hymn of Praise: Psalter Hymnal 247, “All Glory Be to God on High”
Call to Confession: I John 1:5b-8
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: To all who confess themselves to be sinners, humbling themselves before God and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare this sure promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9)
Hymn of Response: Psalter Hymnal 490, “Blessed Assurance”
The Dedication: The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)
Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 635, “Glory Be to the Father”
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Acts 5:1-11
Hymn of Response: Psalter Hymnal 76, “God is Known Among His People”
Closing Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 556, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”
Blessing: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you always. Amen.